A Modest Proposal


By Ashley Thompson and Nick Mott
Winter 2011

The recent COP16 meeting held in Cancún had little to live up to. Following last year’s failure to yield a comprehensive agreement at the close of COP15 in Copenhagen, policymakers worldwide warned in the weeks leading up to the Nov 30-Dec 11 meeting that expectations were low, and that the likelihood of any sort of agreement, let alone a legally binding one, was minimal.

However, on Dec. 11, 2010, a deal was reached. Though modest, it proved a laudable outcome on the heels of lackluster results in Copenhagen. Faced with fewer distractions (media hype and the drama surrounding Climategate, to name a few), negotiators from 193 countries worked quietly, arduously, and late into the night to conclude the two-week meeting with the announcement of the Cancún Agreement, four years in the making.


Broadly, the Cancún Agreement requires all major world economies to reduce carbon emissions, though specifics are not yet laid out, nor are they legally binding. Efforts to halt deforestation worldwide also won out, as the Cancún Agreement states that it will provide developing countries with aid as a motivation to curb burning or logging forests, which contributes greatly to worldwide CO2 emissions. Additionally, a newly-established UN Climate Fund promises to allocate $100 billion to developing countries faced with climate change adaptations. The Fund, however, is not set to be established until 2020. Researchers warn that such a pace still allows for a global temperature increase of about 3.2 degrees Celsius, and critics warn that the agreement is plagued by loopholes and ambiguity. An adequate agreement, in other words, will have to be more than modest.

The 2009 meeting in Copenhagen heard a chorus of dissenters, whose voices and largely self-centered opinions fell flat. In Cancún, reservations remained until late in the night on the final day of talks. Always an advocate for more effective change than COP talks typically yield, Bolivia’s Pablo Solon took a hard stance against the flimsiness of the Cancún Agreement, calling it a “hollow and false victory that was imposed without consensus,” in an article in The Guardian. The year 2010 was the warmest on record, and the lack of media coverage surrounding the Cancún meeting, as well as the relatively meek concluding agreement, may set a potentially frightening precedent for the future.

As usual, the United States kept a close eye on the actions of China and India, stating upfront that it would not back the Climate Fund unless the two up-and-coming economies also agreed to fiscal commitments. By the final day of COP16, all three pivotal countries were on board. The exact allocation of such funds however, remains nebulous, as does the next step in efforts to attain legally binding emission cuts and a replacement or extension for the Kyoto Protocol, which expires in 2012.

Negotiators, however, foresaw the results of the summit. After Copenhagen, they acknowledged the dismal chances of establishing a new, lasting treaty. Those involved in the summit decided instead to focus on the “building blocks” of climate policy: finance for developing countries, the transfer of clean and green technology, deforestation, and emission cuts. With these blocks in place, negotiators hoped to lay a solid foundation for substantive future advances in dealing with climate change.

Although modest, many are optimistic about the results of the conference. Progress, even in small increments, is still a step in the right direction. In the wake of inaction at Copenhagen, the Cancún Agreement speaks a great deal about the ability of world leaders to compromise under the looming threat of climate change. Scientific advances at CReSIS and other leading climate science organizations will help pave the way for progress in future climate conferences and policy.

COP17 will convene in Durban, South Africa, where the most dicey of decisions will have to be made. Though Cancún saw compromise and hope, the real work has yet to be done. COP17 promises to face expectations, pressure, and hype similar to that of Copenhagen in 2009. Whether it can succeed in narrowing the increasingly wide gap between the desires of developed countries and those of developing countries remains to be seen.